Brett Halliday

Mermaid on the Rocks

chapter 1

Michael Shayne, wearing flippers and double-tank diving gear, sliced downward through the clear, green-gold water off Key Gaspar.

As always at this depth, he had a sense of perfect ease and freedom. He could do as he liked, go where he pleased. He was alone, with no duties and no obligations. The dangers down here, unlike those he kept meeting in the ordinary daylight world, were simple and predictable.

He said goodbye to the anchor rope, which led not only to the bottom but back to the surface. He went into a forward one-and-a-half somersault, for no other reason than to find out how it felt. He added a half twist at the end, grinning inside his mouthpiece. He was well aware that in the tight fraternity of scuba divers this kind of horseplay was frowned on except in pools. There was too good a chance of forgetting which way was down and which way was up. But today he had decided that the time had come to disregard the rules. They were meant, after all, for the cautious amateur, who wanted to move like a fish, in a fish’s element, while never forgetting for a moment that he was actually a man, with all the usual human worries.

He looked at the depth regulator on his wrist. He looked at it again, puzzled. The needle had given a sudden twitch. As a matter of fact, there appeared to be two needles, and the tiny numbers on the dial, which usually stayed in one spot to let the needle overtake them, were now whirling so rapidly that they kept overtaking each other. The mechanism was definitely out of order. Shayne was feeling too fishlike to let it bother him. Did a fish worry about where it was in relation to the surface? Obviously not.

He was enjoying himself more than he had in weeks. He had been shot at three times in the last twenty-four hours. Two of the men who had shot at him were dead; the third was in jail. This was just exactly the therapy he needed-clear water, absolute stillness except for the singing of the lung regulator, no criminals, no police, nothing living but himself and the fish.

A savage-looking creature slithered toward him. A barracuda, by God, a big one, only two or three feet shorter than Shayne himself. Shayne waved his big fist in the fish’s bared teeth. It flickered away.

The waving blob of a jellyfish was drifting below him, or perhaps above him, depending on whether he was swimming up or down. Shayne veered away, into a small disciplined army of spade fish. They scattered past.

The charts showed the reef at this point to be eighty feet down. But it shoaled sharply to the east, and Shayne hoped he would strike a trench which would carry him down to a hundred feet or beyond. He had always known, he realized, that by passing the invisible hundred-foot barrier he would break into a new and far more interesting dimension.

The high, steady singing of the regulator set off a peculiar overlapping echo in his head. Without understanding the reason for it, he found it far from unpleasant. He had been working too hard, drinking too much, sleeping too little. Once he was down to a hundred feet, he felt sure, the echo would disappear and his vision would sharpen. The truth was, something odd was beginning to happen to the light. Instead of staying a constant shade, somewhere between green and gold, it shifted to violet and was steadily darkening. The color now was like a spreading stain in the water.

Another large, supple fish swam at him through the violet murk. But it wasn’t a fish at all, Shayne noted with surprise. It was a mermaid wearing a white bikini.

And then as it approached closer, the creature’s tail turned into flippers. It was only a woman after all, Shayne was disappointed to see. She had long blonde hair, which was waving like seaweed. Her features were concealed by a glinting face plate. He wondered vaguely how she managed to get along down here without air. He checked his depth regulator again, and now, instead of two needles, there were none at all. The figures on the dial had swum away.

Looking back at the wavering bikini-clad figure, he decided it would be foolish to cross the hundred-foot line by himself. He wanted her to come with him.

He flipped his powerful body upright. She was shaking her head, her lips moving as though he had done something to make her angry. A thought struck him. She had a wonderful figure, a nicely shaped mouth, but perhaps she was one of those ordinary women without gills? That didn’t have to be a problem. He had enough air on his back for them both. There was a recognized technique for sharing an aqualung. Like every experienced diver, Shayne had been checked out on it.

He took a deep breath, which made the light blink on and off, as though it was stage lighting with some kind of faulty connection. As he loosened his mouthpiece and offered it to her, she became more angry. He couldn’t be sure because of the face-plate, but she appeared to be frowning. She made an incomprehensible gesture. Propelling herself closer, she gripped the strap over his shoulder and began to tug.

A stab of irritation threatened to spoil Shayne’s pleasure. What was going on here? These face-plates had one disadvantage: they made communication difficult. If she didn’t want to go down to the reef with him, that was her business. He would go alone.

A quick flutter kick took him safely out of reach. She clutched her throat and pointed upward. There was a twinkle of light. She was gone.

He hung where he was, waving his arms slowly. He decided he liked the strange things that were happening to the light. There was something dull and monotonous about daylight and darkness. But this combined the qualities of both. In a moment he would continue down, to see if the effect was the same at a lower level. He was in no hurry. He would hang around here a little longer on the chance that the girl would change her mind and return.

And there she was, suddenly. This time she swam up to him, took his shoulder straps in both hands and kicked out hard. Shayne laughed to himself. This was better. He put his arms around her, pulled her in against him and their face-plates clashed. He tried again. Again there was that clash of face-plates, convincing him that a kiss was impossible. But if they tried hard enough, perhaps they could manage to think of something else.

She wriggled provocatively in his arms. The contact was pleasurable, and Shayne was glad to find that she wasn’t as aloof and reserved as she had seemed at first. There was only one thing wrong. She wanted to go one way; he was determined to go another.

He shook his head, still grinning, tightened one arm around her waist and brought the other around in a long sweep.

His movements had lost some of their usual quickness. He must be more tired than he realized. All at once it seemed that he had either lost his flippers or someone had fastened a heavy weight to each foot. There was a time lag between telling himself what to do and getting around to doing it. He still had a certain amount of kick left, however, and when he at last completed his slow scissoring movement, she went with him. Their joined bodies described a graceful parabola, like one of the carefully rehearsed maneuvers in an underwater ballet.

At the end of the long curve he lost her.

He groped after her. A second Michael Shayne, which had separated itself from the first, watched him critically. He was damn slow. He would never capture the girl unless he could speed up a little. She hovered just beyond his grasp, a very attractive girl, long-legged, deeply tanned. Communication being what it was, he had to get his hands on her to pantomime his appreciation of the way she looked and moved.

Again she danced away. A suspicion began to penetrate his tired brain. She was leading him back to the surface. He wagged his head and let her go. He had come out on the reef to dive.

“Later,” he told her, moving his lips elaborately.

And was she even real? Consider the way she appeared and disappeared, without proper breathing equipment. There was something definitely off about this entire encounter. After he had gone down to one hundred and one, he would come back up. Perhaps she would still be there and he could question her.

He waved goodbye. Moving with agonizing slowness, he doubled forward to start the dive.

The girl, furious at being abandoned, clenched her fists at him. She reached around between her shoulderblades, fumbled with something and shrugged off the top of the bikini.

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